On Tuesday, Jan. 17, Madison filmgoers get a treat, an opportunity to see director Steven Soderbergh's new film, Haywire, before it opens Jan. 20. And that's not the only treat. In attendance at Sundance Cinemas Madison will be Lem Dobbs, who wrote the screenplay for the action thriller. It stars mixed-martial-arts fighter Gina Carano as a globetrotting operative, and it also features Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas.
Dobbs will introduce the sold-out screening, which is hosted by the UW Cinematheque and the Wisconsin Film Festival, and he will answer questions afterward. Haywire is the third Soderbergh film Dobbs wrote; the others are Kafka (1991) and The Limey (1999). I exchanged email with Dobbs about the collaboration, Soderbergh's future plans, and Dobbs' upcoming film, The Company You Keep.
The Daily Page: Can you describe Haywire in a sentence or two?
Dobbs: Movies are so often described, indeed made, only in the most superficial terms of genre and plot -- "female action star" in new "espionage thriller" about "a special operative who's betrayed after a mission and goes on revenge-seeking rampage," blah blah blah...
All that being a given, and the hand I was dealt, it's really, for me at least, as much a kind of traditional "women's picture," as we used to call them, about a young woman trying to find out who she is and her place in a world dominated and manipulated by men. That's really the source of her anger and frustration and sense of weakness, not just some clichéd notion of strength -- and why the title Haywire, à la Hitchcock, refers as much to her emotional/psychological state as the physical peril in which she finds herself.
How did this screenplay come about?
Steven happened to see Gina Carano on TV one night, doing her martial arts thing, and was immediately captivated by her, and thought she was so attractive and charismatic, with such unusual presence, not to mention incongruously brutal ability, that someone oughta put her in the movies and design a vehicle for her.
He very generously came to me to ask me to collaborate with him on it. And we proceeded to very quickly cobble this thing together, "reverse-engineering" it, as he likes to say, starting with the set-piece action and fight sequences first, then linking them together, you might say in a sort of "haywire" way, for better or for worse.
I think, too, Steven, since he really is seriously planning, in theory, to retire, wanted us to complete a "trilogy," which is how his orderly mind works, in setting the stage for his retreat from the film business. Consciously or not, it seems to me that our three movies together can now be seen in that light. Certainly there are obvious similarities between Haywire and The Limey, a little less so with Kafka, perhaps. But though they're all stand-alones, each to my mind, for a generally grumpy and disgruntled screenwriter, is slightly enhanced by association with the other two.
Did you continue to have creative input once Steven Soderbergh began working on the film?
So, yes, this latest one ended up being the most collaborative of the three. Our prior two films were based on original screenplays by me - which Steven then "had his way with." So I was maybe too attached to them to view the resulting movies dispassionately.
On the whole, Haywire was a much more relaxed process of back-and-forth writing via discussion/fax/phone and email -- largely accomplished in the making of the movie rather than beforehand. Making it up, that is, as we went along. Not an ideal way to proceed, usually, but many movies are in fact made that way -- with widely varying degrees of success!
How did your ongoing collaboration with Soderbergh come about?
Steven had known of my script Kafka before he hit the big time with sex, lies, and videotape. His agent at that time had been a fan of my script and gave it to him to read, though I was unaware of it, and we never met then. We've enjoyed this odd brotherly friendship, with all that implies of affection mixed with occasional squabbling, as we've both matured.
I'm not sure what to make of reports that Soderbergh will quit filmmaking for painting. What do you make of them?
No one's sure what to make of it. But he's quite serious about being bored with filmmaking, as he has every right to be after such nonstop productivity all this time, and more disgusted by the stupidities of Hollywood, and quite seriously interested in painting for its own sake, I think, and the new challenge it poses. One hopes it means not complete abandonment but rather a recharging of batteries.
Is there a place in Hollywood for young directors seeking to make films in the Soderbergh mode, which for lack of better words I might describe as (on balance) personal yet commercial?
I don't think Hollywood is particularly more difficult at the entry level than it's ever been, and making commercial films personal is theoretically the easiest thing in the world -- hence all the wonderful directors of the past who we revere, the basis for the auteur theory (which I revere). The main trouble now is that such talent and ambition are thin on the ground, and younger directors don't seem to know or care that commercial movies can be personal.
But it's true that if by "Hollywood" we mean mainstream studio fare, then, yes, sure, it's harder to get good movies made of any kind. Luckily, though diminished, there still seem to be other avenues of film finance than simply one monolithic Hollywood entity.
What's next for Lem Dobbs?
I've spent the last 10 years, off and on, working, among other projects, on a film with Robert Redford, which he has just made. It's called The Company You Keep, from a novel by Neil Gordon, another pursuit story, like Haywire, about a former member of the Weather Underground. His quiet small-town life is ruptured when his real identity is uncovered by an ambitious young reporter, and he's forced to become a fugitive again and go back into the world of aging 1960s radicals. It's really a kind of Western in disguise. The former outlaw, the sheriff on his trail, the old gang...
Redford directs and stars. Shia LaBeouf is the reporter. And a helluva supporting cast: Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Terrence Howard, Chris Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Anna Kendrick, Brit Marling and young singing prodigy Jackie Evancho! Should be out later this year, I guess.